PHILIPSBURG — There’s not quite the same ring of finality to the closing of this jail door.
A small cell in the back is the newest feature to the Montana Law Enforcement Museum on the main street of P-Burg, and in a couple of weeks has become the most popular.
“The tourists just gravitate to it,” Scott Dunkerson said Wednesday, of the cell that came out of the old Deer Lodge County jail in Anaconda. “They think this is neat to play a bad guy for a minute. I don’t know what it is. They put the stripes on or put the kids in there and go shopping, whatever.”
As sheriff of Granite County, Dunkerson oversees his own historic jail across the street and up the hill near the county courthouse. Constructed in 1896, it’s thought to be the oldest operating jailhouse in Montana.
Two Junes ago Dunkerson and other local advocates rescued the state law enforcement museum from mothballs in Great Falls and opened it in the historic William Weinstein Building.
Each Wednesday through Sunday during the summer tourist season, the door opens to a free museum with displays that reflect the good, sad, bad and ugly of law enforcement.
A Tommy gun rests in one display case amid an assortment of other firearms dating back nearly as long as there was law in Montana. (On Dunkerson’s wish list is anything associated with Sheriff Henry Plummer or the vigilantes who hanged him in January 1864).
Reward posters call for the capture, dead or alive, of the Wild Bunch of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid fame. A photo depicts Miss Ollie Warren, who operated the fanciest brothel in Billings.
Another display tells the story of Ruth Garfield of Ryegate, the petite woman who became Montana’s first woman sheriff in 1921. Her husband Jess was the newly elected first sheriff of Golden Valley County who had yet to be sworn in to his first full term when he was shot by a deranged rancher named Lampson in the Snowy Mountains. He died 12 days later in a Billings hospital and his young wife was appointed to replace him. Ruth Garfield never carried a gun but served out her husband’s two-year term and another as undersheriff.
A mannequin of a mustachioed policeman reigns over a back corner, not far from the new jail cell and the old-fashioned jail stripes that visitors are invited to try on. On the deep-blue uniform jacket that belonged to Joe Freshman of the Butte Police Force are three bullet holes — two on the left shoulder, one in the left abdomen – that ended his life on Sept. 23, 1906. Freshman, 52, was walking his beat when an unknown gunman attempted to rob him, then opened fire when he realized Freshman was a cop.
“The more I thought about it, that’s kind of sick,” Dunkerson said of the bullet-riddled jacket. “But it’s law enforcement history.”
Sadly, the history is fresh on Montanans' minds after the shooting death during a pursuit near Three Forks last month of Mason Moore, a deputy sheriff from Broadwater County. Another hope by Dunkerson and the statewide museum board is to find a way to display banners honoring each of Montana’s law enforcement officers who fall in the line of duty.
According to Montana Trooper, a quarterly magazine of the Association of Montana Troopers, the Montana Law Enforcement Museum was founded in September 1983 in Deer Lodge at the Old Prison Museum.
The museum was moved to Great Falls in late 2005 in hopes of attracting more visitors, but when rent at the mall took a dramatic increase in 2011, it was shuttered and its contents placed in storage. Dunkerson replaced retired Sheriff Steve Immenschuh in 2013. He said he contacted Dan Smith, a detective on the Great Falls police force and chairman of the state museum board, to see about retrieving some of the contents of the collection related to Granite County to display in his office.
“I told him my jail is a museum and we get a lot of tourists up here. I’d kind of like to get the exhibit back,” Dunkerson said.
Smith told him that while that wasn’t possible, the board was looking for a new home for the entire museum. The town council got behind Philipsburg's bid, and when Shirley Beck, owner of the Sweet Palace and several other buildings and businesses in town, offered the use of the Weinstein building, the museum board gave the town at least a temporary nod.
“So far the board has been really pleased with the numbers that we’re turning out as compared to where it was,” said Ron Beck, Shirley’s husband and a volunteer one day a week at the museum.
More than 300 people dropped in one day last summer during the Flint Creek Valley Days car show. Beck said on a more normal summer day, 70 to 100 can be expected.
“They’re really pleased that the display pays tribute to all the people who have served and are serving in law enforcement,” he said. “The exhibits that we’ve got here started way, way back in the 1800s and they go through modern day, and so I think they’re really impressed with the idea that there even is such an exhibit available.”
A National Law Enforcement Museum is under construction in Washington, D.C., and is expected to open next summer.
“I’ve heard there are some states that have museums dedicated to law enforcement, but apparently not that many, just from what I hear from people who come in and say, ‘I wish we had something like this,’ ” said Beck.
Those tourists that Dunkerson gets to his own historic jail?
“If I have people in there I can’t show them,” he said. “But they really enjoy it if they do get to see it, so I thought it would be kind of cool to have something here that people can visit. So we started searching Montana for a jail to put in the museum.”
Dunkerson is a representative of the state coroners association on the law enforcement museum board. Another board member, Jeff Douglass of the Montana Law Enforcement Academy, joined in the search that ended 40 minutes away in Anaconda.
There, police chief Tim Barkell and Bill Everett, Deer Lodge County’s new chief executive officer, were receptive to Dunkerson’s idea of donating a jail cell.
Gary Kamps and a crew from Anaconda Job Corps did the work, cutting out a front door and two cell walls, then welding them together to make the cramped museum version. The crew transported the finished piece to Philipsburg and assembled it two weeks ago.
The Anaconda jail it came from dates to the late 1800s. It was closed after the March 1999 death of an inmate who apparently hanged himself in a shower stall. It was the second hanging within months. For the next five years local inmates were housed in leased space at Butte-Silver Bow County’s temporary jail at Warm Springs.
The new Anaconda jail opened in March 2004 next to the old one, which these days houses coroner and Department of Emergency Services offices. The old jail cells serve as storage rooms, according to Pat Dunne, who was a deputy sheriff in the jail from 1959-1973.
“There were two great big long cellblocks inside of a steel room. I’d say it was something like 50 or 60 feet wide and 80 feet long,” Dunne recalled.
Doors to the cellblocks had bars, he said, but the individual cells – six to a block – were made of the flat steel material seen on the museum's jail. Those in the Philipsburg jail on the hill are of the same material. As Dunkerson understands it, they started life as brigs on a surplus World War I ship, and he suspects the same is true of the Anaconda cells. Dunne has his doubts, due to their size.
The addition of the jail cell is popular, but there are plenty of ideas for more at the law enforcement museum. Ron Beck would like to see tributes to canine cops and brand inspectors. Dunkerson said he wants to get Montana's tribal police involved.
“The people I think who appreciate it the most are the ones in law enforcement and/or are retired from law enforcement,” Beck said. “They really appreciate the fact that we do have something that will recognize the importance of what they do.”